What the Academic Fraud Allegations Could Mean for UNC and the ACC

The University of North Carolina basketball program suffered yet another blow this week when former star Rashad McCants claimed that he benefited from favoritism and special classes in order to remain academically eligible while playing at UNC. ESPN’s investigative program “Outside the Lines” reported that McCants said that he was encouraged to enroll in sham classes that required no attendance and only one term paper per semester in order to pass, and that tutors even wrote papers for him occasionally. These claims come after a decade of suspicion of the athletic department at Chapel Hill, as the basketball and football programs have been the subjects of multiple investigations and reports regarding possible academic fraud since at least 2006.

Rashad McCants ponders his upcoming final exam

Rashad McCants ponders his upcoming final exam

McCants’ former teammates and coach have vehemently denied the claims but there have been enough stories over the past several years to warrant a second look. An internal probe by the university in 2012 found attendance irregularities in classes that were popular with athletes, a former school reading specialist resigned this semester after releasing a study claiming that 70% of UNC basketball and football players read below an eighth-grade level, and the football program is still on probation after being suspended from the 2012 postseason due to academic fraud. Plus, McCants’ unofficial transcript from his college days shows that of his 18 classes in African-American Studies – the program that has come under heavy fire as the home of these bogus classes – 16 resulted in grades of B or higher, including 10 A’s. Of his 10 classes outside the program, none resulted in better than a C. Maybe he just really, really liked African-American Studies, but the truth probably falls closer to the moral gray area.

So what does this mean for the parties involved? All it would take is a politician with spare time to take an interest in the case – think the George Mitchell report in the MLB steroids scandal – and this thing could be blown wide open. If there’s truth behind the rumors, UNC could be in for tough roads ahead. Along with university administrators and professors losing their jobs, the basketball program could face any number of sanctions: postseason suspensions, loss of scholarships, the vacating of wins, seasons, or their two national titles in the past decade, the first of which was won with McCants as their second-leading scorer. This would not bode well for the immediate future of the program.

…But it could be great for the rest of the ACC. UNC is coming off its first consecutive years without a conference title under Roy Williams, finishing with double-digit losses in both seasons, and last year they didn’t crack the AP Top 10 for the first time in Williams’ tenure. This is about as close to a “slump” as you’ll get for this program – it’s nearly impossible to match the prestige on Chapel Hill, and the Tar Heels’ fifth-ranked recruiting class this year might mean an immediate return to national prominence – but there’s a group of hungry teams waiting for their chance to pounce. The already ultra-competitive conference underwent a shakeup this decade with the addition of Virginia Tech, Boston College, and Miami (who nabbed a surprising conference title two years ago), and just last year annexed premier programs Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame from the powerhouse Big East. Throw in the defending champ Virginia, dangerous mainstays Maryland and Wake Forest, and oh yeah, the arch nemesis Blue Devils, and UNC can’t rest on its laurels. With Williams at the helm and the history and resources of the program behind it, the Tar Heels will never have a problem recruiting, but a few years away from the postseason or without those all-powerful scholarships could provide just enough space for another contender to squeeze in.

As for Williams’ legacy, it will take something pretty drastic to do much damage. He steered the program out of the post-Dean Smith turmoil (again, a relative term) with a pair of national titles in his first six seasons, matching the number that the legendary Smith claimed over his 36-year run. He’s forced his way into the discussion of UNC greats in just over a decade, and his tenure at Kansas was nearly as impressive. But it’s hard to imagine that a coach of his magnitude doesn’t know every detail of his players’ lives, particularly their eligibility, and McCants claims that Williams actually directly guided him into the fraud classes. We’ve watched the asterisk that’s attached to the names of John Calipari and other excellent coaches who have been sanctioned persist despite incredible success, and Williams could soon have one as well. It won’t erase those two championships, however, and it certainly won’t keep the Heels down for long.